Mon 13 Apr 2009
Geert Wilders, the right-wing Dutch politician. Photograph: Jerry Lampen/Reuters
“Islamophobia” is a relatively new word, perhaps only from the late 1980s. What it signifies, however, dates back to the very beginning of the Islamic faith. Indeed, the initial response of the Meccan elite to the monotheistic preaching of Muhammad was so fearful of the economic fallout and political challenge of the message brought by this new prophet that the first Muslims were forced to flee to a safe haven in Madina. After Islam was established as a community and expanded, it came into conflict with the Christian enclaves in Syria and Egypt, as well as the Sassanian Persian empire to the east. By the time Muslims had briefly made forays into southern France in the 9th century, the Venerable Bede villified them as a “very sore plague.” Whether seen as Arabs, Moors or Turks, the many ethnicities represented by the growing religion understandably struck fear among those who saw the faith as a political or religious threat.
Fear is understandable; anything new is prone to be misunderstood, especially when the issue is about how to believe in God. Christians and Jews came to fear Islam because it was a rival, one with powerful political muscle through the 16th century. Fear, however, is not the problem. The major stumbling block for peaceful coexistence between rival faiths or ideologies of any kind is hatred. It is one thing to reject the message of Islam on an intellectual level, but it is quite another to so detest the religion and the people who follow it so much that violence erupts. Take the medieval Crusades. Liberating Jerusalem from the infidels seemed a noble goal, but slaughtering the inhabitants until rivers of blood flowed in the narrow alleys is congenital religiocide. Even the option of conversion was foreclosed. The Christian God of love and mercy became the vengeful God of hate; Jehovah triumphed over Jesus, while Saracen and Jewish blood paid the price.
I suspect that the term “Islamophobia” casts too wide a net for the levels of reaction to Islam in Europe and America. Phobias are real problems, but I can be afraid of heights or enclosed spaces without ratcheting it up to outright hate. Most people who have a negative view of Islam, and by inevitable extension Muslims, act out of fear. Not appreciating the diversity of views within the historical and contemporary contexts of Islam and acting primarily on biased reports and stereotypes, it is not surprising that the religion linked to Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda suicide bombers generates concern and fear. But there are more than a billion Muslims in the world and the vast majority are like the vast majority of people everywhere: wanting to live a peaceful and profitable life on this earth is the shared goal. The fanatics feed on the inevitable frustrations of Muslims, many of whom live under systems of oppression and lack the freedom to expand the dimensions of their faith. All except the most forgiving followers of Jesus have reason to hate the fanatics, but it must be remembered that extremists are more likely to kill fellow Muslims they disagree with than walk into a 7/11 store in Utah and open fire on Mormons.
I know that neologisms can be annoying, but they also allow us to escape the shackles of burdened connotations. Given the relatively recent birth of “Islamophobia,” I propose a variation to provide nuance in the debate. Those who fear Islam can be communicated with through dialogue and educated about the inherent problems in bias; those who hate Muslims and the religion that is defined solely as an evil plot will probably not be swayed by reason or appeals to mutually sane coexistence. For those who hate to the point that “the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim” becomes a mantra, I suggest we apply the term “MisIslamothropes.” The “mis” and the “thrope” both stem from misanthrope, which ultimately is the basis for all human hatred of others. There is no way to measure the relative amounts of Islamophobes and MisIslamothropes. To me the cross-over line is the desire to kill or cause harm, following on the Gospel moral that intention is also a sin. If it is a sin to want to have sex with your neighbor’s wife, then surely it must be to want to kill someone simply because he or she is a Muslim.
So is it really possible to hate Islam and not hate Muslims, as Dutch politician Geert Wilders insists? On a theoretical level one can hate the sin and love the sinner, a principle supposedly at the base of Christianity, but the problem comes in defining the “sin.” Wilders obviously hates the “Islam” he defines, but makes no effort to examine his own bias and view the Islam of most Muslims. His motivation, which is blatantly political to be sure, is one of fear, but it goes beyond his own personal distaste to actively promoting hatred of the religion. To the extent Islam is seen solely as something sinful and inherently evil, there will be no love for Muslims except those who are willing to abandon such sin. Those who foment hate by perpetuating only a biased view of Islam cannot say they do not hate the Muslims who love their faith. Hate fueled by fear would not be a problem if it did not have an impact in the real world. The MisIslamothropy of Geert Wilders, Daniel Pipes and Robert Spencer is more than a public nuisance; it legitimates the very kind of hate attributed to Islam.
Daniel Martin Varisco
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